A Marketers Guide to Emerging Technology: Part Two

Ed Cotton: chairman of the 4A’s Strategy Committee & chief strategy officer at BSSP

Nothing seems to stay still for a second.

Today’s media ecosystem is constantly evolving. In part one, two technologies were explored that are impacting the ways in which brands interact with consumers today: app integration and messaging bots. Read about how these technologies are changing the consumer and brand relationship.

These are not the only innovations causing marketers to reexamine how they communicate with customers. Two other technology trends are also reinventing the marketing playbook: brands as software and also the accessibility of virtual reality.

3. Brand as Software

Can software be developed that isn’t just useful, but a reflection of the values and purpose of the brand?

The one-person drone was one of the stars of this year’s CES.

When Andreessen Horowitiz’s Benedict Evans and Steven Sinofsky returned from this year’s CES, their podcast report contained the key observation that while the Shenzhen ecosystem allows anyone to mix and match a range of smartphone components and produce a hardware solution, the open marketplace means it’s impossible to gain competitive advantage in hardware. Their conclusion was that it has to be the software that makes you different, echoing the words of their boss, Marc Andreessen, who famously declared in 2011 that “software is eating the world.”

The case with most non-digital-first brands with regard to their evolution with digital technology is that they spent a lot of time in the early days of each technology achieving parity and just being present — from websites to being mobile ready, or in the case of automotive manufacturers, building a connected system. The trouble is, when everyone has the same digital solution, what is it that makes you different?

The main question then becomes how your brand will show up in software to give you a competitive advantage. You can extrapolate this out to apps and any other form of software that a brand could be involved with.

Amazon’s Dash is just the start of the IOT for CPG companies.

Obviously, there are benefits to first-mover advantage with software. Take the Amazon Dash system as an example, a button users simply push to replenish a favored brand. For a few leading CPG brands, it’s a chance to test and learn with a basic “Internet of Things” and it provides a business solution to lock in brand loyalists. Despite its neat simplicity, however, it’s not yet providing the end user with that much value.

A step beyond Amazon’s Dash is P&G’s Febreze Home with Febreze Connect. Launched at this year’s CES, it connects to a user’s smartphone and allows them to make their rooms smell nice remotely, at the touch of a button. In this case, the hardware is a fairly standard set of sensors, and it’s the app that makes the difference.

One of the best examples of brand software is the Philips Hue, a connected lightbulb system that allows premium lightbulbs to be controlled by a $4 app. This system, launched a few years ago, has become a huge success and has now turned itself into a platform that has allowed for other applications to be built upon it.

Looking at some interesting non-digital-first brand software, the old-school company John Deere is now providing farmers with crop and weather data in addition to tractors, and the giant General Electric is now integrating and packaging software into the sale of their industrial hardware.

A modern locomotive is a ‘rolling data centre,’ as Mr Immelt puts it. By analysing that data and cross-referencing with its rail traffic management system, and sending instructions to trains, GE can squeeze out an extra mile per hour of speed for US railway operators worth $200M per year in extra profits. — Financial Times, January 12th, 2016

Then there’s Tesla, who’ve gotten out ahead of the game with automotive software that’s increasingly becoming the brand experience, as this recent video for a software update containing three new self-driving features shows.

Brands looking to move forward and develop software need to understand consumers’ needs and build up from there to create brand software that is not only useful, but experiential and differentiated. Beyond user understanding, it helps when brands start with vision, so the software can become a manifest expression of that conviction.

The real power of software, especially when it becomes a platform, is that it lives, breathes and evolves. Tesla’s software is constantly being updated and sent out to its owners; it also learns over time about how its drivers drive, allowing it to constantly improve. Software allows brands to be dynamic by collecting data about their users and utilizing it to improve the brand experience.

4. Accessibility of Virtual Reality

If you like the emotional impact of TV ads, you’ll love what you can do in VR.

It’s early days for this technology, but it’s coming fast with the launch of the Oculus Rift this year, as well as solutions from HTC, Sony, Samsung and Google Cardboard. It’s not just that these technologies are coming, but it’s the fact that industry leaders Samsung, Facebook and (maybe) Apple are behind them, and some are investing heavily in their own production units. Also, the movie industry is behind the technology. This year’s Sundance Film Festival included 26 VR films.

We know many brands and agencies love TV advertising because of its emotional potency, but VR is all that and so much more. At its best, the technology clearly has the potential to deliver deep, rich emotional experiences that are beyond anything TV and film have provided to date.

The New York Times recently interviewed innovators in the VR space, including Nonny de la Pena of Emblematic Group, who for years has been trying to harness the power of VR to bring people closer to serious issues.

In the piece, she described just how powerful the technology can be in driving empathy:

With my film Hunger in Los Angeles, the first V.R. documentary shown at the Sundance Film Festival, in 2012, I used real audio from a food bank where a man waiting in the long line collapsed into a diabetic coma before he received food. At the premiere, I watched with amazement as my audience tried to walk around the ‘seizure victim’ on the ground, while many emerged from the goggles crying.

UNICEF has also gotten behind VR in an effort to bring donors closer to the realities at-risk children face. Last year they made a powerful film about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee girl. The organization believes VR is an amazing way for potential donors to develop empathy, and they’ve been using it as a fund-raising tool.

Outside of the world of nonprofits, here’s a firsthand experience from a Time magazine writer at this year’s CES:

But the VR experience that moved me to tears was Toy Box on Oculus Rift. A virtual sandbox where you can play with all kinds of toys, this game lets two players interact in the same virtual space simultaneously. Each player wears their own Oculus Rift headset and headphones, with a controller in both hands. From there, anything goes: You can take target practice with a laser gun, get in a firefight with one another’s toy tanks, or pull apart a robot doll and wear its parts. Then my playmate, Erin, shot me with a shrink ray. Suddenly, not only were all the toys enormous to me, but Erin’s avatar was looming over me like a hulking giant. Her voice even changed as it poured through my headphones, entering my head with a deep, slow tone. And for a moment, I was a child again, with this giant person lovingly playing with me. It gave me such a profound perspective on what it must be like to be my son, that I started to cry inside the headset. It was a pure and beautiful experience that will reshape my relationship with him moving forward. I was vulnerable to my giant playmate, yet felt completely safe.”

For brands, this will mean a newly expansive palette of opportunities that require a combination of storytelling and craft skills.

Advertising with VR has to be radically different from the current model, because it pushes the user to the center of the experience, but to date we only have a few base cases as examples and they’re barely scratching the surface of the potential. They’re predictable — test drives and tours of tequila distilleries — so they still follow the basic rule set.

Of course, making the purposeful brand more emotional is one potential route, as with this effort from Stella Artois, which Unit9 produced for this year’s Sundance:

Stella Artois: Buy a Lady a Drink | Unit9
 Since 2014, Stella Artois has partnered with Water.org, helping to bring 300,000 people in the world out of water…www.unit9.com

While adoption of the hardware is the obvious challenge, it looks likely that VR on the smartphone will be the first place where this trend becomes pervasive. While the experience is likely to be subpar compared to the stand-alone units, the efforts of Google, Samsung and Apple will ensure this will be the likely first-stage proving ground for brands.

In 2016 we’ll see this next wave of technology develop further, and brands and their agencies will take tentative steps forward. Here are four simple things you should do to get involved in these technologies.

1. Gain Intelligence

You need to be up to speed with what’s going on in the emerging world. Talk to the talent, talk to the practitioners and gain your own perspective.

2. Play

You can’t imagine the possibilities unless you play with the technology yourself. Your team needs to get hands-on experience with the new trends so they can see the potential for themselves.

3. Isolate Opportunity

When you know your user and their journey, you can understand how and where the trends might play. Instead of overstretching into an ambitious and costly project, find the best and most realistic opportunity that offers the greatest ROI.

4. Do

Get something done and learn from it.

The four tech trends outlined in this piece build upon an already expansive palette of channels and technologies whose sheer breadth is making it challenging for brand teams to deal with. This expansion is pervasive and constant, so it’s easy to imagine the temptation for fatigue and cynicism to set in. Brands and their agencies need to build discipline, stamina and structure that can allow them to test and experiment parallel to everything else they have going on.

It’s unlikely we will see all, or maybe even any, of these technologies come to full fruition in 2016. Still, the brands and teams that invest time and effort into building a process and experimenting to see how these trends can best fit into users lives, will be the ones that get out ahead of the game.

About BSSP

Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners is a full-service marketing communications agency, named Small Agency of the Decade by Adweek. Learn more at bssp.com.